December 21, 2021

Examining Local and Global Threats to Reefs with Reef Check Malaysia

Submitted by Reef Check Malaysia

coral bleaching in Malaysia

In this article, Reef Check Malaysia focuses on threats to coral reefs and other marine ecosystems, and what we can do to eliminate or mitigate the impact of these threats.

We divide threats to coral reefs into two broad categories: local in scale and global in scale.

Local threats arise largely as a result of human activities and land use changes along coastlines adjacent to coral reefs. Local threats to coral reefs are many, and the impacts on coral reefs are reasonably well understood. They include:

Overfishing, which can result in detrimental changes to reef ecology
Destructive fishing (such as dynamite and cyanide fishing), which destroys the reef structure and hinders recovery
Coastal development, releasing silt and sediment that can smother reefs and alter hydrological flows
Pollution, from industrial and agricultural activities as well as sewage 
Physical impacts from tourism, including divers, snorkelers and boats

In Malaysia, the Marine Parks section of the Department of Fisheries (DoF), Sabah Parks and Sarawak Forestry Corporation are tasked with managing these local threats to their protected reef areas.

These local threats can be managed or mitigated in a variety of ways, including:
Awareness campaigns for local stakeholders and tourists, to encourage more “reef-friendly” behavior
– More effective patrolling and enforcement activities to reduce encroachment in protected areas
Improved planning to ensure that coastal development in coral reef areas is implemented in such a way as to minimize damage to coral reefs, including site selection, site management and remediation measures
Pollution control measures both upstream (e.g. reduction in fertilizer loads from plantations through rigorous implementation of riparian zone regulations) and locally (e.g. annual septic maintenance programs; grease traps).

These responses all have two things in common:
– They can be implemented effectively and efficiently at a very local level. In Tioman island, for example, as the Department of Fisheries (DoF)’s Reef Care partner for the island, we are helping the community in one village to reduce poaching of giant clams from the reef immediately adjacent to the village. On a wider basis, we are ensuring that all dive and snorkelling sites have well maintained mooring buoys to eliminate anchor damage. Biologically, we are controlling the number of Crown of Thorns starfish (a coral predator) on the reefs. Finally, we have managed a program of septic tank improvements, reducing the flow of sewage pollution onto local reefs
– Threat reduction and mitigation is much more effective if local communities are involved in management, because their participation leads to greater ownership of reef health issues, and improved compliance with regulations.

Against these local threats, a number of global threats have emerged over recent years, mainly resulting from the changing climate caused by global warming. Among these are mass coral bleaching and the impact of more frequent and stronger storms.

The first significant mass coral reef bleaching event reported in Malaysia was in 1998, in which an estimated 40% of corals in reef areas around Peninsular Malaysia died. Reefs had barely recovered before the 2010 mass coral reef bleaching event occurred, which fortunately saw lower coral death rates.

Scientists agree that mass coral bleaching is likely to occur with increasing frequency in the coming decades, and there is an urgent need to put in place plans to:
– Respond effectively to mass coral bleaching events with management interventions to protect reefs during bleaching events
– Build the “survivability”, or resilience of coral reefs to better withstand future bleaching events

storm damage in Malaysia
storm damage in Malaysia

Even more recently, climate change has resulted in stronger storms, which, combined with wind-driven waves and sea-level rise, can have devastating effects. In early 2019, tropical storm Pabuk hit the Terengganu coastline causing significant damage to shallow coral reefs.

In September 2021, a storm in Mantanani island caused damage – in some cases severe – to 11 houses, as wind-driven waves caused beach erosion; others in the village were damaged by strong winds. For coastal communities such as these, climate change isn’t some existential future threat – it’s happening here, right now. And the time to take action is right now.

There is not much that local managers can do about the global threats. But what we can do – and should be doing, as a matter of great urgency, is address the local threats, because they are local and straightforward to fix. No new technologies are required, no great expenditure. Education and awareness programs will fix many of the problems; sensible planning will resolve others; and small investments in infrastructure such as sewage treatment will take care of the rest. Remedying local threads will lead to healthier reefs and healthy reefs will be more resilient to withstand global threats that are difficult to address on the local level.

Putting a value on ecosystems such as coral reefs is difficult because they have such a wide variety of different values – from the value of a snorkelling tour for an individual up to the value of coastal protection for an entire island or community. But as they start to repair their homes and jetties, the people of Mantanani can put a value on coral reefs: RM 60,000 (about $15,000). That’s the bill for the repairs they are going to have to make. Until the next storm…